Maybe it is because I am a college professor---a teacher---that I have always been drawn to the title of rabbi for Jesus. I call it a title because “rabbi” is not part of his name. That is also true of the title, “Christ.” When I was a kid, I assumed “Christ” was his last name! To the contrary, rabbi and Christ are titles that describe something about the function of Jesus. To call Jesus “the Christ” is to describe him as “the anointed one.” And to describe Jesus as “rabbi” is to say he is a teacher. That aspect of Jesus I can relate to and appreciate.
After so many years teaching, I feel like I know a thing or two about the process. And I am confident enough about what I have learned teaching that I suspect some of the same things apply to Jesus, the rabbi. Let’s explore a couple of these learnings.
One of the key learnings I picked up was crucial and humbling. Simply put, just because I say something does not mean the other person (student) learned it. If I say something, the only fact is that I said something. I should not assume any other facts. Perhaps I could assume the other person heard what I said. That is usually true. But I don’t always assume that. I have had the experience of teaching (saying something), and the other person was not even hearing. Their eyes might be open, but the minds could well be miles away. You cannot look at a person and know whether they are daydreaming!
Furthermore, just because I say something and the other person hears it, does not mean that person has learned it. For example, I could go to a lecture on astrophysics and hear it. But that does not automatically mean that I learned astrophysics. Rather what I probably would learn is that hearing it only convinced me that I did not understand astrophysics. I could hear it, but only learn that I knew nothing. I suppose that is progress…but not much!
Let’s go back now to Jesus. I am sure he said things that other people (disciples) did not even hear. Oh, they may have heard sounds coming out of his mouth. They may even have heard his noise. But they did not even hear. I suspect Jesus was a much wiser teacher than I ever have been, so he must have known this.
I am also confident that Jesus also knew that the disciples might even have heard him clearly. But that does not mean they learned. Hearing and learning are two different enterprises. Jesus really wanted the disciples to learn. In fact, that is exactly what the word, “disciple,” means: a student or a learner. Authentic disciples are those who hear and learn what the rabbi teaches. That gives me a profound sense of who Jesus was and what he was doing.
Jesus was a rabbinical person traversing the Palestinian countryside teaching and calling for people to hear and to learn. When they did learn, he said, “follow me,” and he made disciples. Literally, becoming a disciple is “going to school” with the rabbi! But this kind of teaching was only the beginning.
There is one more step in the teaching process. The real teacher not only wants a student (disciple) to learn. The real teacher wants the disciple to incorporate or incarnate that learning. The disciple can take that learning to heart---take it literally into himself or herself. The kind of teaching Jesus was doing did get to the heart of things. It had to do with central truths of life: love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, hope and so on.
Just as seeing is not always believing, so learning does not always lead to doing. Real learning leads to doing. For example, I might learn what justice means. I could probably pass a test, write an essay and, perhaps, get an “A.” But until I actually begin to practice being just, I have only head-learning. The goal of learning about justice is to begin acting justly. So it is with the teachings of Jesus and his desire for the disciples.
The teaching that Jesus, the rabbi, gave to his disciples was meant to be heard, to be learned, and to be put into action. These teachings often came in very simple phrases. For example, Jesus, the rabbi, told the disciples to love the neighbor as the self. In other words, I have to love my neighbor as I love myself. I can imagine the disciples saying, “that’s an interesting idea!”
Then Jesus would reply, “No, I really mean it. I do want you to love the neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus was a great teacher, though. I am sure he modeled the kind of behavior he taught. His whole life was a proclamation that said, “Do as I do.”
If I want to be a disciple that is what I have to do: do as he did. I have to be as loving, as forgiving, as caring and as serving. It’s a tall order, but it is about the Kingdom, after all. Finally, I think Jesus, the rabbi, would say the Kingdom is not just an idea to learn. It is a reality to bring about. It starts with you and it starts with me.